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Fifteen years after the original release of this set (1997), the potential buyer might want to know how it compares with the budget 10-CD set issued by Brilliant Classics in 2005, Historic Russian Archives: Mstislav Rostropovich Edition [Box Set]. First, he should be aware that it has a number of duplications with Brilliant's Rostropovich Edition - more even than meets the eye. Britten's Second Cello Suite (CD2 - see detailed listing at the end of the review), the Concerto of Schumann and Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme (CD8), the Concertos of Honegger (6), Knipper and Vainberg (7), the first of Shostakovich (4), the Cello Concertino of Prokofiev (3), the Concerto-Rhapsody of Khachaturian (11) and the Cello-Piano Sonata of Karen Khachaturian (Aram's nephew, CD10) are the same performances, plus a few trinkets from CD 1: the transcriptions of Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, Fauré's Après un rêve, Milhaud's Tijuca and Stravinsky's Variations & Coda from The Fairy's Kiss, all with pianist Alexander Dedyukhin (spelled Dedukhin by Brilliant); EMI dates them December 11 1960 and Brilliant December 15 of the same year, but various stage or audience noises show that they are the same recordings. Despite the similarity of titles ("Tijuca from Saudades do Brasil" for EMI, just "Brasilian Dance Tijuka" for Brilliant), I might not have guessed that the composer dubbed by Brilliant "D. Mele" was in fact Darius Milhaud, if ITunes hadn't duly credited him in the composer's column. I guess someone in Russia spelled Milhaud phonetically as it is pronounced with a Russian accent, "Mele", and nobody knew any better at Brilliant's headquarters. Reminds me of the story about a Japanese LP of "Halord in Itary by Hectol Belrioz".
Britten's Cello Suite is one of the major piece for which EMI fails to give a recording date (others are Respighi's Adagio con variazioni on CD6, Taneyev's Canzona on CD9, Shostakovich's Cello-Piano Sonata with the composer at the piano on CD10, Chopin's Cello-Piano Sonata and Shaporin's Five Pieces on CD12, and some of the small encores of CD1), but it turns out to be the same performance as on Brilliant, which dates it 11 November 1968. If "Mele" was a small blooper, Brilliant made a huge one by attributing to "Aram Khachaturian" (on their CD6) the sonata that EMI duly ascribes to his nephew Karen (but it is Aram Khachaturian that appears on iTunes). You might not have known just looking at the timings because EMI gives the sonata four cues, and Brilliant only two, but they are the same recording, and an important one too, since it is the composition's premiere, with the composer at the piano. There is also a very bizarre issue with Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante (CD3). EMI's booklet claims to offer a strange Frankenstein monster of a recording, collating two performances recorded years apart, the first movement under Israel Gusman from 27 December 1972 and the two last movements under Rozhdestvensky from 25 February 1964, both supposedly recorded in the same hall (Great Hall Moscow Conservatoire) with the same orchestra (USSR State Symphony Orchestra), although I hardly hear any sonic discrepancy between movement 1 & the rest. Then Brilliant has the same work (CD1), but attributed to the Moscow Philharmonic under Kondrashin, which would make it an entirely different performance from EMI's: only Brilliant also dates it 27 December 1972, which is the same date as EMI's purported first movement! Well, synchronized coughs and other stage noises show that the first movement is indeed exactly the same performance (but whether conducted by Kondrashin or Gusman remains an open question, and so does the identity of the orchestra playing), but not the rest. The similarity of sonics between EMI's first and other movements, would indeed make me think that both performances were recorded in the same hall, with same microphone placement, and possibly with same orchestra, which would point in favor of Gusman/USSR State SO rather than Kondrashin/Moscow, but that's only conjecture (although supported by EMI's greater trustworthiness in its crediting).
But Brilliant's most BLATANT (and truly incredible) lie is its attribution of Khachaturian's Concerto-Rhapsody (on its CD4) to the "Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeny Svetlanov" from 17-10-1965. It isn't Svetlanov, it isn't the Moscow Philharmonic, it isn't 17-10-1965, it isn't even an orchestra, it is quite simply the same version as on The Russian Years CD11, the "pre-world premiere" with piano accompaniment by Aza Amintayeva given on 4 April 1964!!! (Note however that I'm not sure EMI's date can be fully trusted either. I have a Melodiya/Eurodisc LP, 86881 KK, with a live performance of the Concerto-Rhapsody with "Rostropowitsch" and the USSR Symphony Orchestra under "Swetlanow", "recorded on the occasion of the first performance on January 14, 1964" and paired with Kondrashin's recording of Khachaturian's 3rd Symphony. No way the pre-premiere with piano accompaniment could have taken place three months AFTER the orchestral premiere! And since every reference attributes the year of composition of the Concerto-Rhapsody to 1963, I am assuming that it is EMI that is wrong here in its dating, and that it should have been 4 April 1963. Incidentally - discographies are a true bag of snakes - some sources, like the online Chant du Monde catalog of works of Khachaturian or Onno van Rijen's 20th-Century Soviet Composers website, claim that the orchestral premiere of the Concerto-Rhapsody took place indeed on January 14, 1964, but in Gorky with the Gorky Philharmonic under I. Gusman).
The two sets also share some compositions but with different accompanists (and I've checked: those are NOT just mislabeled same performances): Miaskovsky's Concerto (Svetlanov conducting 14 January 1964 on Russian Years, CD 9, and Kondrashin 27 December 1972 on Brilliant, but that may be dubious, since it is supposedly the same concert as the problematic Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante whose first movement is the same as EMI's, so maybe it is Gusman and not Kondrashin), Prokofiev's Sonata (the world premiere with Richter "in the presence of the composer" from March 1 1950 on EMI CD3 and Dedukhin 10 January 1967 on Brilliant - but this dating too is dubious, and Brilliant seems to have made a confusion with the date of the Karen Khachaturian Cello Sonata with the composer at the piano which immediately follows on the Brilliant disc and which they wrongly credit to Aram), Tishchenko's Concerto (Igor Blazhkov 6 February 1966 for EMI CD11, Svetlanov 28 November 1968 for Brilliant). There is no perceptible audience noise in EMI's Tishchenko and I checked: it is indeed the reissue of the LP recording made by Rostropovich for Melodiya, Boris Tishchenko Concerto (1963) [LP record] (and Angel-Melodiya gave more precise information than EMI: it is the Wind and Percussion Ensemble of the Leningrad Philharmonic playing, with Anastasia Tishchenko at the organ). It is a powerful work, Shostakovich at his most austere, grim and dramatic: makes me want to explore more of the composer. The two performances of Miaskovsky's Concerto and Prokofiev's Sonata are live and the respective sonics (including presence and definition of the soloist and the amount of audience noise) would give a slight edge to Brilliant in Miaskovsky, a more pronounced one in Prokofiev, but it is not really significant and certainly not a decisive factor, and in Prokofiev the fact that EMI offers the world premiere may be considered a decisive compensating factor. There is also one shared piece with the same accompanist (Ded(y)ukhin again), but a different performance: Stravinsky's Russian Song, from the same 11 (or 15?) December 1960 concert mentioned above for EMI (CD1), but 11 November 1968 for Brilliant. Here Brilliant's sounds is much better, making in comparison the earlier recording sound distant and with a muffled piano (although it didn't strike me when I listened to the other pieces from the same concert). But OK, it is unlikely that Stravinsky's 4-minute Russian Song will be a decisive factor to anybody.
Might the sonics of the duplicated recordings make a difference? Strangely, things in this respect are not all one-sided clear-cut. There are no significant sonic differences between EMI's and Brilliant's Britten Suite, Khachaturian (Aram) Concerto-Rhapsody and Khachaturian (Karen) Sonata, Prokofiev Concertino, Knipper's and Vainberg's Concertos (iTunes calls him "Jacob Weinberg" on the EMI disc and while the spelling Weinberg is a possible one, I wonder where they got this "Jacob" from: it is either "Myczyslaw", Vainberg's original name when he was Polish and as EMI's booklet duly has it, or the Russianized "Moysey Samuil" or any derivations thereof as iTune has it for Brilliant). The first 20 seconds of Brilliant's Prokofiev's Symphonie Concertante (the one attributed to Kondrashin but which is the same as EMI's Gusman) are curiously muffled compared to EMI, but the impression disappears thereafter. Honegger and Shostakovich display perceptibly more vividness and clarity with Brilliant (more consistently so in Honegger), but the second movement of Honegger isn't cued right, it should have started at 2:17 into the track. But it is EMI that cues wrong the beginning of the Finale of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, letting the previous cadenza spill over (0:26 into the Finale's track). On the other hand there is more transparency in EMI's Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, and each variation is cued (Brilliant offers only one cue). The differences in sonic perspective aren't decisive in Schumann's Concerto, but Brilliant's cueing of the Finale is wrong again. Schumann's Concerto isn't divided into clear-cut movements, it is a sectional work with tempo changes, and Brilliant cues the Finale at the score's "lebhaft" indication ("lively") and not, as they claim (and as EMI rightly does) at the ensuing "sehr lebhaft" ("very lively").
So, ultimately, deciding which set to favor is going to be mainly a matter of price and repertoire preference, if your upcoming mortgage payment prevents you from buying both. The Brilliant set is, as of now, the cheap introduction to the art of Rostropovich. It also offers a more balanced program between the classics (the concertos of Haydn, Schumann, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Lalo, Tchaikovsky's Variations, Bach's 5th Suite, cello sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms, Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston) and the 20th century repertoire (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Miaskovsky, Honegger, Sauguet, Bridge, Britten, Tishchenko, Vlasov, Vainberg, Knipper). That said, if your attraction there is the mainstream repertoire, be aware that, except, I believe, for the Lalo Concerto, Rostropovich also left numerous studio recordings of all of it with the major labels: Melodiya (often reissued in the US by Monitor), EMI (but the complete EMI recordings, which includes the contents of this set, now sells at ludicrous prices, Rostropovich - The Complete EMI Recordings (28 CDs); however, the following 3-CD set offers a good if far from complete sample, The Rostropovich Edition: Dvorák, Brahms, Haydn, Bloch, Strauss, Miaskovsky), DG (The Glory of Rostropovich: 80th Birthday Tribute), Philips and Decca (The Complete Decca Recordings), Erato/Teldec (Plays Cello Works). There are also studio versions of the works of Britten (Decca), Prokofiev (different versions for Melodiya/Monitor, EMI, Erato), Miaskovsky (Melodiya/Monitor, EMI) and Shostakovich (Melodiya/Monitor, CBS/Sony, DG, Erato), that are considered references. See also the comments section for more discographic leads. I haven't done yet any interpretive comparison, but still, for the seasoned collector at least, the Brilliant set can be taken only as a complement. One additional factor is that, contrary to the claims of some of the other reviewers, Soviet coughers in those years were often as annoyingly loud and indiscreet as their Western counterparts. Also, as I think I've made clear, Brilliant's production values are poor, with many mislabellings, some tantamount to deception.
The EMI set is more expensive, although at less than 8 a disc postage included at the time of writing it remains within my own range of acceptability (but I bought it on eBay for 6 per disc). It too has its share of standard repertoire: Strauss' Don Quixote (CD6), the same Schumann and Tchaikovsky (CD8) as on Brilliant and Chopin's Cello-Piano Sonata (in less than ideal sound) and Polonaise brillante with the ubiquitous Dedyukhin (CD12), to which one can add Glazunov's Concerto-Ballata and Taneyev's short Canzona (CD9). There is also Beethoven's Triple Concerto but, frustratingly, only the first movement, with the same "dream team" that recorded it a few months earlier with Karajan in Berlin but now under Kondrashin, and interesting for being slightly more urgent and more raw, with a kind of raging determinacy to the playing of Oistrakh and Rostropovich in the more dramatic moments, that wasn't there under Karajan, where they were more polished.
Still, the program on "The Russian Years" is slanted more in the direction of the 20th century repertoire and rarities, and it offers a lot of those, and more than Brilliant: other than the shared works (if not performances) of Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Honegger, Miaskovsky, Aram and Karen Khachaturian, Tishchenko, Knipper and Vainberg, EMI offers one full CD of music of Boris Chaikovsky (whom Rostropovich considered "a genius, whose contribution to the cello repertoire has yet to be sufficiently appreciated", CD5), works of Kabalevsky (the world premiere of his Cello-Piano Sonata with the composer at the piano, prior to the composition's final and published form, CD10), Shaporin (his "Five Pieces" op. 25 sound more 19th than 20th century), Villa Lobos, Respighi, Lopes-Graça, the Japanese Yuzo Tomaya, Ustvolskaya, Schnittke, Piazzola (all three recorded specifically for the set's release on the 13th, bonus CD) and on top of that still more works of Britten (First Suite and Symphony for Cello), Shostakovich (2nd Cello Concerto and Cello-Piano Sonata with the composer at the piano) and Miaskovsky (2nd Cello Sonata with Dedyukhin - a very backward-looking and romantic piece). For some listeners this might be an impediment and, with the price, a decisive factor in favor of Brilliant. For me, like other reviewers, it is the main value of the EMI set. Whatever you think of his artistry, one of the most admirable things with Rostropovich was his unflagging championing of contemporary music. And even more admirable is the fact that, unlike many artists, he didn't just stop at the composers of his formative years, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Britten: he never stopped, commissioning works (some of them quite avant-garde in their language) from Dutilleux, Lutoslawski, Halffter, Gagneux, Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, Berio, Penderecki, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Shchedrin, Panufnik, Hoddinott, MacMillan and countless more (records vary about how many premiere performances he gave, himself claimed 320). That the set features many world premieres, oftentimes with the composer's participation or presence, evidently adds to its historical significance. An additional incentive are the great liner notes, written by Rostropovich himself and giving wonderful insights and anecdotes about the composers and the circumstances of these recordings.
For the same reasons as those stated for the Brilliant set, some of EMI's offerings will be more significant than others, of course, to the seasoned collector. Rostropovich was the major champion of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten, he left studio recordings of all these works that are rightly considered references (and add the Miaskovsky Concerto as well, Prokofiev: Sinfonia Concertante; Miaskovsky: Cello Concerto), so here too any live recordings of the same pieces must be viewed as complements rather than as references, and the same would be true of the Schumann Concerto, the Tchaikovsky Variations and Straus' Don Quixote (see comments section for all the references to the individiual CDs of Rostropovich's studio recordings of the works contained on "The Russian Years"). But just a performance of Rostropovich in Ustvoskaya's extraordinary Grand Duet (a demented cross-breed of the grimmest Shostakovich and the most pounding Bartok or Henry Cowell) would have made this set a must-have for me. I wasn't even aware that the composition was dedicated to him, in the liner notes he explains that he didn't play it for 30 years, because it was so radical it could have led to Ustvolskaya's expulsion of the Soviet Union of Composers or even her arrest. The two Schnittke are also powerful pieces, with the piano pounding at times as if composed by Ustvolskaya, and with moments of mesmerizing beauty in the concluding "Epilogue" for cello piano & tape (a substantial, 25-minute composition). The Chaikovsky disc is indeed superb, his solo cello suite similar to Britten's but more raw and a worthy companion to Britten's three, the Partita intriguing and fascinating, based on the major scale, grim and dramatic, and highlighted by the rare sonorities of harpsichord, electric guitar and vibraphone - one is surprised that Schnittke wasn't its composer. While both compositions come in good sound, the remaining Concerto (with applause at the end showing that it is a live performance) is alas marred by a strong static noise starting in the first movement, track 12, at 2:32, and a few bizarre thuds (as at 4:20 in track 13 and 5:42 in track 15) that sound like the arm of a turntable, or maybe a microphone, being bumped. The Concerto of Tishchenko (with the rarely encountered orchestration of winds, percussion and organ) is also a hugely powerful piece, making me want to explore more of this composer, the Knipper (with a similar orchestration of brass and timpani) is also a valuable work, and listening to the Cello-Piano Sonatas of Kabalevsky (eloquent) and Karen Khachaturian (powerful piece, surprisingly modern) certainly has me reappraise these composers.
And too bad EMI couldn't unearth a recording of Britten's Third Cello Suite. It too was dedicated to and premiered by Rostropovich, the reasons why he never recorded it are unclear, but that he didn't is a tragic loss for the music lover and Britten admirer.
Here are the complete contents:
CD1 Short pieces and transcriptions
CD2 Britten Suites for solo cello 1 (15 February 1966) & 2 / Symphony for Cello (Moscow Philharmonic, Britten conducting, world premiere 12 March 1964
CD 3 Prokofiev Cello Sonata with Ricther world premiere 1 March 1950 / Symphony-concerto dedicated to Rostropovich (see details in the review) / Cello concertino dedicated to Rostropovich (Moscow Radio & Television Orchestra, Rozhdestvenski 13 May 1964)
CD4 Shostakovich Cello Concerto 1 (Rozhdestvensky Moscow Philharmonic 10 February 1961) & 2 (USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Svetlanov 25 September 1967), both dedicated to Rostropovich
CD5 Boris Chaikovsky Suite for solo cello (world premiere 5 November 1961) / Partita for cello piano harpsichord electric guitar & percussion (world premiere 10 January 1967 with A. Dedyshkin piano and the composer at the harpsichord) / Cello Concerto (Moscow Philharmonic Kondrashin world premiere 4 September 1966 in the presence of the composer), all dedicated to Rostropovich
CD6 Villa Lobos Preludio for eight cellos from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 (6 February 1962) / Respighi Adagio con variazioni (Moscow Philharmonic Kondrashin undated) / Honegger Cello Concerto (USSR State SO Victor Dubrovsky 14 February 1964) / Straus Don Quixote (Moscow Philharmonic Kondrashin 12 March 1964)
CD7 Fernando Lopes-Graça Concerto da camera (Moscow Philharmonic Kondrashin 1967) / Lev Knipper Concerto-Monologue for cello seven brass instruments and two kettledrums (USSR State SO Rozhdestvensky 25 February 1964) / Mieczyslaw Vainberg Cello Concerto op. 43 (USSR State SO, Rozhdestvensky 25 February 1964), all dedicated to Rostropovich
CD8 Beethoven Triple Concerto first movement (Oistrakh-Richter-Moscow Philharmonic Kondrashin 5 January 1970) / Schumann Cello Concerto & Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations USSR (both USSR State SO Rozhdestvensky 30 November 1960)
CD9 Taneyev Canzona (with Dedyushin world premiere undated) / Miaskovsky Cello concerto & Glazunov Concerto-Ballata (both USSR State SO, Svetlanov 14 January 1964)
CD10 Shostakovich Cello-Piano Sonata undated / Kabalevsky Cello-Piano Sonata op. 71 dedicated to Rostropovich (world premiere 6 February 1962) / Karen Khachaturian Cello-Piano Sonata dedicated to Rostropovich (world premiere 10 January 1967), all three works with respective composer at the piano
CD11 Tishchenko Concerto for cello seventeen wind instruments percussion and organ (orchestra unspecified by EMI, in fact the Wind and Percussion Ensemble of the Leningrad Philharmonic with Anastasia Tishchenko organ, Igor Blazhkov conducting 6 February 1966) / Aram Khachaturian Concerto-Rhapsody world premiere with piano accompaniment by Aza Amintayeva in the presence of the composer attibuted to 4 April 1964 but presumably 1963 / Yuzo Toyama Cello Concerto (Moscow Radio and Television Orchestra under the composer, world premiere 13 January 1967), all pieces dedicated to Rostropovich
CD 12 Chopin Cello-Piano Sonata (unspecified date) and Polonaise Brillante (description unclear but apparently recorded at the same concer as the following Miaskovsky) / Miaskovsky Cello-Piano Sonata No. 2 op. 81 dedicated to Rostropovich (10 January 1967) / Yuri Shaporin Five pieces op. 25 dedicated to Rostropovich (unspecified date), all with Alexander Dedyushin
CD13 Piazzola Le Grand Tango with Igor Uriash (12 November 1996) / Ustvolskaya Grand Duet with Alexei Lubimov (7-8 November 1996) / Schnittke Cello Sonata no. 2 with Igor Uriash (21-22 November 1996), Epilogue for cello-piano and tape with Igor Uriash 17 Semptember 1996, all pieces dedicated to Rostropovich